The Last Temptation of Hollywood

updated 12/23/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1991 01:00AM

ON A CLEAR EVENING IN THE AUTUMN OF 1990, Wall Street Journal movie critic Julie Salamon found herself doing the unthinkable. A confirmed acrophobe, Salamon went to the 59th floor of Manhattan's Citicorp building with Eric Schwab, who was scouting locations for Brian De Palma's vertiginously ambitious film The Bonfire of the Vanities. Looking for a point from which to shoot an opening scene, Schwab crawled onto a ledge that had no guardrail. Salamon followed. "I thought, 'This is great. I'm not afraid,' " says Salamon. "At that moment, I got caught up in the lunacy of the whole project."

In her illuminating new book, The Devil's Candy (see review, Pages Picks & Pans), Salamon records all the lunacies, large and small, that led Bonfire to crash and burn at the box office despite the huge success of the Tom Wolfe novel on which it was based. Budgeted for $29 million, brought in at $50 million, the extravaganza was dubbed Bombfire by industry insiders and lost millions. Not surprisingly, Candy is a hot ticket in L.A., where studio execs have been dispatching messengers to the bookstore, the better to revel in their colleagues' misjudgments.

By Salamon's account, many of Bonfire's problems resulted from casting decisions. Boyish Tom Hanks was widely regarded as a poor choice for the lead role as hard-driving bond salesman Sherman McCoy, but he was so amiable on the set, says Salamon, "that everyone was willing to say, 'Oh, the perfect Sherman McCoy.' " Director De Palma (a compulsive sort who loses 60 lbs. and two girlfriends—and gets engaged to a third—in the course of Salamon's book) was still auditioning actresses for the part of McCoy's mistress even after Melanie Griffith was in serious negotiations for the role. (De Palma considered Griffith a whine and a nag.) And Bruce Willis, who was chosen to play the part of Peter Fallow—a sleazy British reporter in Wolfe's book—made himself unpopular on the set, Salamon reports, with his bodyguards and cocky attitude.

But the producers' most remarkable decision was to give the part of honest judge Myron Kovitsky—who in the book is white and Jewish—to Morgan Freeman, who is black. The intent was to soften the book's negative portrayal of blacks, but the change cost Warner $2 million.

In addition, Melanie Griffith had her breasts enlarged midway through the film, Salamon reports, causing wardrobe problem. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was brutal about the bags under Griffith's eyes, too, and it was suggested that she keep her head back during love scenes. Says Salamon: "You really start to understand why actors get so crazy in this business."

Salamon believes the project was doomed primarily by an unfocused script and by impossible expectations raised by the book's success. "Maybe the directors who said it couldn't be done were right," she says.

Yet doing an anatomy of a flop, surprisingly, had never been Salamon's goal. In 1989, with a novel called White Lies behind her, Salamon had decided to do a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking. She got turn-downs from Steven Spielberg and others before De Palma, the director of The Untouchables, gave her carte blanche in December 1989. For the next year she monitored his sessions with studio executives and prowled about the sets. "De Palma never shut me out," she says. "He's very curious, and I think there was a part of him that just wanted to see what would happen." (De Palma apparently has no hard feelings; he called her recently to congratulate her on a good review.)

While husband Bill Abrams, a publishing executive, baby-sat for their newborn daughter, Roxie, Salamon would get up in the middle of the night to be on location in the Bronx. "It was chaos," says Salamon. "Sometimes I felt like a war reporter trying to figure out where the action was."

She has had a lifetime of infatuation with the movies to help keep her going. Salamon's parents were Czechoslovakian émigrés who survived the Holocaust and settled in Seaman, Ohio, where her father was a doctor and her mother his office manager. "They were huge movie buffs," says Salamon, who along with her sister was often driven to Cincinnati to see films.

Salamon studied history at Tufts University and law at New York University before joining The Wall Street Journal in 1978. After five years on the banking beat, she became the paper's film critic.

Her experiences researching Candy won't make her reviews any more forgiving. "As a critic, my job is what it's always been," she says. But she has gained valuable new insight. "I've always been enthralled by movies," she says. "Now I understand better how bad ones happen."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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